Archive for March 2011
As the little tempest in a teacup that is some artists on Twitter finding Modern Art Notes Tyler Green’s Art Madness Bracket rather light on works of the post-war art that wasn’t produced by white males, noted art writer Sharon Butler solicited alternative lists that were published on her Two Coats of Paint blog. I submitted my own list as did several other artists, writers, and critics. I found the entire exercise to be very interesting; looking at the other lists I had quite a few “Oh, how could I leave that work off?” moments. In other cases it allowed me to gain a slightly more subtle understanding of another artists own work, development, and interests. I found drawing up my own list to be fairly eye opening; some artists that I hadn’t consciously thought about for awhile wound up having a lot of pieces on my first draft (that I had to cut 3 Bruce Nauman works was a surprise). In other cases I found that artists that were important to me didn’t have a singular work or even series that stood out in proportion to their overall career (or against the other works I listed).
In the end I approached my list as I think the individual writers who rank baseball prospects do. It has to be considered a snapshot of what I think right now, it is not the same list I would’ve produced a year ago and may change even in the near future. It also almost certainly contains a bias towards works that have influenced me in the past and work that I look at and consider in relation to what’s going on in my own studio now. I think this was a consideration for all of the artists who participated. As one of my primary issues with Mr. Green’s list is that focusing on individual masterpieces was one of the systematic biases that lead to so few women making the list, I made much broader allowances than he or his co-jurors did.
1. Pollock Number 32
2. Judd 100 works in milled aluminum
3. Ellsworth Kelly La Combe
4. Joseph Beuys Arena
5. Smithson Spiral Jetty
6. Gordon Matta-Clarke Splitting
7. DeKooning Excavation
8. Frank Stella The Marriage of Reason and Squalor
9. Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Stills *
10. Judd Untitled 1962
11. Serra Belts
12. Nauman South American Triangle
13. Roni Horn Paired Mats – for Ross and Felix
14. Terry Winters Good Government
15. Brice Marden The Grove Group *
16. Gober Silly Sink
17. Richter October 18th *
18. Christopher Wool Apocalypse Now
19. Glen Ligon Untitled (Text paintings) *
20. Paul Thek Technological Reliquaries *
21. Matthew Barney Cremaster 3
22. Eva Hesse Untitled 1970
23. Catherine Opie Untitled (Icehouse series) *
24. Blinky Palermo To the people of NYC
25. L. Bourgeois Spider 1997
26. Felix Gonzalez Torres Untitled (Perfect Lovers)
27. Nauman Corrider Installation (Nick Wilder Installation)
28. Flavin Untitled (Marfa Project) 1996
29. Barry LeVa Continuous and Related Activities
30. Maya Lin Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial
31. Julie Meheretu Goldman Sachs Mural
32. Wade Guyton Untitled 1997 *(kind of)
Works marked with an asterisk point to series or bodies of work that are so closely related that I think pulling out a single work is beside the point.
My last changes were removing Martin Puryear’s Bask in favor of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial and cutting Moria Dryer’s Random Fire. The works that just missed were Ana Mendieta’s Silueta Series, Rachel Whiteread’s House, Bruce Conner’s A Movie, Robert Frank’s The Americans, Christian Marclay’s Video Quartet, and Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth. Clearly some of these works will be seen by others as more deserving, or “better”, but the point is that they just aren’t to me. I’m not arguing that Wade Guyton’s Untitled is of greater historical importance than Frank’s masterpiece, but The Americans doesn’t hold any interest for me or my practice. On the other hand I still find myself referring back to that painting of an “X” that was run through a big Epson printer, and thinking about how it has changed how I approach ideas of text and touch in my own painting. Similarly, early on I toyed with the idea of adding John Beech’s Make in the last spot on the list. I wanted the end to point towards a new work that had recently affected me and caused me to reconsider a broad swath of the art I was seeing around me every day.
At the top I still have Pollock and Judd. I wanted to put Judd’s Chinati Foundation (the entire Foundation and everything in it) ahead of even Pollock, but that wouldn’t really have been in the spirit of the list or the response to Mr. Green. As it stands, Pollock’s drip paintings in total represent a great deal to contemporary art, and I think one of the major differences between post-war European and American art turns on the different spaces in painting and process he opened up with these works. I can oscillate between Number 32 and Autumn Rhythm, but I prefer the stark graphic quality of the uncorrected black enamel on cotton duck. That it all starts with drawing appeals to me.
It has also been interesting to hear suggestions to what we missed. John Powers noted that Jay DeFeo’s The Rose was left off everyone’s lists. (If women are denied the admission of genius that would “let them produce a singular masterpiece, she’s an excellent example of an opposite bias – she produced that single masterpiece, but is otherwise not considered for not having a more level career.) John Morris pointed out that I missed any reference to street art, and that Henry Darger perhaps should have been listed. I’ll speak to street art at another time, but Darger would’ve presented an interesting case. My own list is remarkably light on figuration (even in the photography), and Darger also raises the issue of “outsider” art. It’s a different angle, and one I don’t have an answer to, but considering everything from his opus as a single work would turn notions of art’s canon on it’s head.
Obviously I’m completely missing Johns, Rauschenberg, Rothko, Guston, Barnet Newman , and Warhol. This exercise has me reconsidering John’s White Flag. (I still think the Ballantine Ale Cans are a fairly lame joke, however.) With the others, I still just don’t come back to them anymore. I think all of these artists produced great works, and they’re works that I love, but they’re not something I relate to day to day anymore. John Powers has written an excellent repudiation of the concept of the masterpiece itself in response to the uproar. Looking over the lists the other artists provided, I think that may point to where artists are going to take art. Less masterpieces and more work is more democratic after all. If more voices is deemed a good thing then maybe shouting down the masterpiece is a good use of breath.
Although I am not a basketball fan, the NCAA tournament has always represented the turning point where winter turns to spring. I have no interest in March Madness or associated workplace gambling; my sport is baseball and the annoyance posed by my co-workers trying to get me to go in on the office pool really only means that opening day is around the corner…
This is the second year Tyler Green has given his readers a set of brackets ostensibly for the art world. Last year he pitted the America’s abstract painters against one another (Cy Twombly beat out Ellsworth Kelly for the crown), but this year’s version is a bit more problematic. He aims to present a tournament of the greatest post-war works of art, but has instead managed to expose just how ingrained some of the systematic biases that haunt art and its attendant institutions can be.
Looking at his selection of 64 works of art, you’ll find only 3 works by women: Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. On the other hand, most of the (very) old white males of the art historical canon are represented multiple times. Ruscha, Serra, and Judd are found twice; Richter three times; Johns, Rauschenberg, DeKooning, Pollock, and Barnet Newman four times; and, perhaps fittingly for this kind of popularity contest, Warhol leads the pack with five works. That’s more than half the total bracket represented by only 10 (white) men.
Mr. Green did not generate the list of works himself; he amalgamated a seeding selection from five guests (two of whom were women) to get the final brackets, but the process is his, and despite facing complaints from myself and others (on Twitter) he has chosen to defend these results as given by the process he set up. I have suggested (in an exchange on Twitter) that such results may point to a flawed process and that as the organizer he could have made some changes, but his response was “Why on earth would I presume I’m so smart I should overrule the five other (distinguished) people I invited to contribute?”
An exercise of this sort, intended to be lighthearted and in good fun, is bound to contain most of the works that populate the very end of a mammoth art history textbook. The broad outlines and movements of post-war and contemporary art will be illustrated with a few key works, as space allows. If women and minorities are not well represented, whose fault is that? The makers of the list only picked personal favorites and had them compiled after all. If Joan Snyder, Helen Frankenthaler, Eva Hesse, Lee Bontecou, Ana Mendita, Anne Truitt, Agnes Martin, Lee Krasner, Lynda Benglis, Carolee Schneemann, Judy Chicago, Howardina Pindell, Elizabeth Murray, Dorthea Rockburn, Mona Hatoum, Yayoi Kusama, or Louise Bourgeios (to name just a few of the notables from the same time period as most of the works on the list off the top of my head) weren’t the favorites of these critics and curators, why is that necessarily a problem within the context of this harmless little game?
The answer is that because Mr. Green’s game has managed to illustrate quite succinctly how easy it is to exclude women and minorities and still have everyone involved remain blameless. Whether it be a small lark of a bracket or the larger art world, it is too easy to point at a system or process as an excuse without actually examining who set up the system or how. It may be “just a game”, but games allow us to distill and process some of life’s messier and complex interactions into a simpler form that is more comprehensible for its abstraction. In short, they make it easier to see what is fair, and I think it becomes very clear that the system as devised is not (either in the brackets or the art world).
At least in the case Art Maddness II, the problems are easier to identify and fix. Looking at the list I think it is evident that there are shifting evaluations based on lax guidelines. If it makes sense to consider Cindy Sherman’s entire Untitled Film Still series and Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof paintings as a single entity, why does Jasper Johns need three different flags? Is Three Flags really that different from Flag? Similarly, how different are the DeKooning Women or any of the Newman zip paintings? Is the point to consider groundbreaking work or major statements? Isn’t Vir Heroicus Sublimis so closely related to Onement I that context that they can be discussed in the same breadth? Pollock’s individual drip paintings are different enough, but isn’t their scope related to the collective breakthrough they represent?
Lest I be accused of not presenting an alternative, I find that I only need to look at another rite of spring, one that relates to my own sporting interest and would not require any great investment to change. Every spring Baseball America ranks the top 100 prospects in baseball’s minor leagues. It is every bit as contentious as any other interested battle of minutiae, and their process is remarkably similar to Mr. Green’s. Each of their writing staff compiles a list of their opinion of the top prospects, and the results are compiled in a spreadsheet. However instead of that being the end of it and having the final list generated by having Jim Callis hit ‘print’, the writers get together to look at the raw results and debate and argue for them. They curate the list, revising and reconsidering so that there is, if not consensus, then at least a sense that the biases and idiosyncrasies that arise from such a small sampling of opinion can be removed and that the final list is stronger. Mr. Green could have had a simple conference call with Michael Auping, Kristen Hileman, Dominic Molon, Ed Schad, and Katy Siegel to see where duplicate works that present the same idea could be reconciled, and to see what deserving works that may have been left off could take the place of the duplicate.
To be inclusive may have been a bit more work, but it is disappointing that a writer who purports to hold himself to high standards and certainly holds others to similar account did not make the effort. The tournament hosted by Modern Art Notes is a small offense, but the reason to speak out against such minor infractions is to hold the larger system to account. That “it’s just a game” shouldn’t be an excuse if we don’t want “it’s just art” to be a similar refrain.
It is unfair to judge an entire genre, movement, technique, or medium in art by the weakest examples (or what has annoyed you in the past). The confluence of assemblage in sculpture (and to a lesser extent painting) seems to have become a defacto house style, especially among young and emerging artists and the galleries that show them. It has always annoyed me, perhaps for its seeming ubiquity and the lack of (or dare I say utter contempt for) craft that sometimes seems inherent to such work. It is as if the permissions opened up by Rauschenberg and fully realized in the work of Richard Tuttle had spawned a contemporary equivalent to the legions of academic painters who buried their canvases with earth tones following the lead of Rembrandt and others.
We all have our own value systems and personal biases, but they should not prevent us from wondering enough to be drawn in for a closer look at something that has previously only been an irritant. I ventured into Peter Blum’s 29th Street space unfamiliar with John Beech’s work (although intrigued by images of Make that I had seen in various press announcements) and left considering what made this exhibition, this work, different from similar constructions and assemblage that I have dismissed in the past. I was excited to discover new work that spoke to my own personal interests while at the same time forcing to me reconsider so much of what I’ve seen and responded to in the past.
Upon reflection the draw of reference and subject matter is the key. Upon moving to New York I was struck by just how neat, clean, and taped off much of the art that was being shown was, despite being exhibited only a few feet from gritty sidewalks and made in lofts and factories re-purposed from a different era. I wanted the art I was seeing to reflect the environment of the city that I was growing to love. Mr. Beech’s sculptures and drawings are inspired by the wear and detritus of an industrial urban infrastructure. He takes the quasi-minimalist forms of dumpsters and shipping containers, functional objects that are as ubiquitous as they are either ignored (at best) or scorned as a nuisance (at worst), and draws out a more complex formal language. His sculptures, like their sources, are as marked as the sidewalks and streets we all walk, portraits of a system and environment that functions not in spite of the grime, but because of it.
Not all of the works are uniformly successful, but they do point to the artist tracking the tests, sketches, and prototypes that are a personal R&D lab. The front gallery offers a sculpture of five industrial sized bottles of glue turned up to get every last ounce of usable material out, a trick familiar to almost any builder writ large. The large Composite Drawing push pins a mural sized accumulation of small sketches to the wall. Individually they do not provide much beyond a measure of the artist’s abstract penmanship. Similarly the small wall vitrines (Here to Alang and works from the artist’s Blagen series) in the side gallery only set up the recycling of studio debris and previous ideas (such as Mr. Beech’s larger previous encasement sculptures) as smaller works.
The side gallery also includes three Coated Drawings, which are some of the most successful works in the show. They relate to the collages of metallic tape on near billboard sized photographic prints, but the grain and scale of the photographic base is perfectly matched to the tone, touch, and viscosity of the enamel paint that modifies and erases that image; it becomes almost impossible to tell if the artist has printed a degraded negative. In the large two dimensional works the web of metallic tape struggles to find an equal footing with the scale of the photos. The two Reutlingen Factory Yard works use more tape (# 2 disrupting the surface with an all over network that mirrors the background, # 1 relying on a contained flat mass), but Stagg Street, Brooklyn works better in this regard for combining two photographs in the first place. The strips of foiled adhesive are able to function as drawn line and shape that both function independently by describing new related shapes while also unifying the underlying images, rather than just disrupting the illusionistic rendering in the photo.
Moving to the rear gallery his ideas are more fully realized through the objects presented. Make takes the tape drawing from the large collages and expands it into three dimensions. It is made of re-purposed hollow aluminum troughs bolted together to form a barricade like structure. Uniformly placed screw holes on the ends of each bar hinting at earlier function, while red duct tape is a direct application of color in lieu of a painted gesture, the ridges of folded tape are a union impasto. The sculptures Rolling Platform and Silver Container simultaneously reference painting and the minimal object while also foregrounding the lowly containers that are abused in the process of moving everyday cargo and freight form place to place. His containers would be hard pressed to function; the platform is sealed off, the container is oversized and open; but their construction as sculpture and everyday monument is persuasive.
While it is possible that the turn to assemblage was a response by younger artists to the same hermeticism I disdained, there is a noticeable difference with the craft of Mr. Beech’s sculpture; it seems solidly constructed rather than slapped together, and engages the methods of fabrication through a personal studio practice that is direct and unfussy. Finish may not be necessary, but is considered and never ignored. In this way his exploration of construction and assemblage also constitutes a formal investigation of these processes that is often missing from other works of superficially similar construction. His pragmatism towards his materials is both subject and operation, the contractor’s equivalent of medium as message. Where other assemblage invariably falls flat for me is not when the construction is shoddy, but when it is ill-considered, or only just what is necessary to get it out of the studio. By avoiding this trap Mr. Beech is producing complete statements as opposed to exhibiting his sketches.
John Beech The State of Things at Peter Blum Chelsea 526 West 29th Street, New York City through March 19, 2011.
Tara Donovan’s new exhibition at Pace empties out the arena in which she normally works, eschewing a single piece that overruns the gallery in favor of discretely framed wall reliefs. In their own way they present the same beguiling alchemy of material that she is known for in her large scale sculptural installations. From across the gallery the subtle shift between the accumulations of floating pin-heads and the white board grounds transforms the material; they could pass for massive graphite drawings, the pins becoming flickering marks built up on paper. Of course upon closer inspection the material plainness becomes apparent and as they aggregate in shallow space their material density becomes dazzling.
But the show as a whole only hits one note, and the individual works feel interchangeable, be they gradient, dispersion, or puddle. The group as a whole feels like it has been produced to be easily digested by collectors. The varying sizes provide price points of entry into a brand experience that is more manageable than a hangar sized installation and easier to display, but there is no internal logic between the size of the works and the image. I think this weakness actually runs counter to what is usually considered one of Ms. Donovan’s strengths. Here the total amount of work and material presented diffuses out across the gallery walls rather than concentrating at a center of gravity. While I suspect that these works will wind up looking better alone, or in relation to other works, that only goes to their status as commodity.
I do not begrudge Ms. Donovan (or any other artist) a variety of output, or making works that may aim for marketability. The realities of making art, especially large scale sculpture, require the same capital investment that other projects on the scale of architecture must contend with. Sculptors have long funded projects with the sale of drawings, and Ms. Donvan winks towards the sibling hierarchy of media by entitling the individual works as Drawing (Pins). Similarly, the catalog essay by the Drawing Center’s Jonathan T.D. Neil addresses the unique perspective an artist who primarily works in three dimensions brings to a flat surface, but for me the interest has always lay in the dichotomy between schematic layout and direct mark making. These drawings provide neither, but instead point to what they may allow the artist to do next.
Tara Donovan: Drawings (Pins) at Pace Gallery 510 West 25th Street through March 19th.
Seasons change, New York is starting to get slipping glimpses of spring and as Armory week rolls into NYC, and right on cue the art world starts to fidget about naked displays of commerce. Or at least part of the art world does. Organizers and participants have likely been a bit too busy with the reality on the ground, leaving the broader social implications to critics, theorists, and self-proclaimed contentious objectors. The feelings of ambivalence that artists have towards fairs (and the larger commodification of their work) were raised by Jen Dalton’s and William Powhida’s #Rank project during Art Basel in Miami. But where #Rank cast a wide net addressing the unease emerging artists have with fairs and considered both the reasons for and possible alternatives to the art fair model, Charlie Finch has launched a broadside at the entire economic structure of the art market.
I’ll admit to finding Mr. Finch’s writing largely problematic for its curmudgeonly insistence on snark as an argumentative coup de gráce. As a current example he compares the (rather standard) desire of artists for gallery representation to be the equivalent of a child pleading for its Mommy. While ‘the credential of representation’ is no longer provides the guarantee of a stable career (if it ever did), it is still a step that moves the artist’s career forward and (at least, hopefully) better positions them to spend more time making work as opposed to working a day job to pay the rent. His justification for this infantilization is only that it leads to the affront on his ideals for art by virtue of enabling the volume of transaction in the art market. The sentiment that the structures underlying the production and distribution of art have sometimes unsettling political implications always seems to be in the background when critiquing the primary market, but where Mr. Finch departs from most others (including the discussion at #Rank) is with a hard and fast proposal. Of course his proposal represents his particular sense of idealism; He calls for new funding that would remove art from the agency of the rich by enabling a new WPA style system that would make art a local, grass-roots enterprise.
Of course this plan is utterly unrealistic in this fiscal day and age. If any segment of government could or would actually “tax the hell” out of the super-rich enough to start a new WPA, artists will not find themselves the beneficiary beyond the likely promotion of the labor they would do as a day job. (In fact many would see a decline in their circumstances given how many (who lack representation) make ends meet by working within the art services sector.) The closest thing to a new WPA was likely found in the stimulus package, and that did not do much to promote a new vision for art. My interest is not so much in Mr. Finch’s plan as the assumptions that underlie any sort of need for it.
Mr. Finch’s assertions that art has “become formulaic and debased” and it is in need of the rise of a new avant-garde to save it assumes that the present situation hasn’t always been the case. Art since the Renaissance has served a primary function of reinforcing the tropes of the powerful, anything else was secondary. That the art was meant to instruct or inspire a populace in the pews seems more like the frosting in a press release; the grand architecture and decoration is much more about reinforcing the church’s Earthly authority. The end of feudalism and rise of capitalism has changed whose authority is being flattered and promoted, but art’s service to that end has remained as constant as the flow of money.
It is my feeling that as art’s ties to the church as it emerged as autonomous from the craft work of the guild system is what has led to the idea of art as an arena for transcendence or spiritual fulfillment. Aesthetics and a narrative of the personal vision of the artist may have replaced the strict doctrine of organized religion, but the elevation of the physical matter to something that may nourish an individual’s soul has continued along as part of the discourse. While I very much do think that art and aesthetics have a value that may not be easily quantified or understood, I think it is the specific link to past iconographies and power structures has largely been to art’s detriment. It has confused the real value of artist’s labor and its necessary relation to power so that when these realities are brought to the for it causes anxiety with idealists and puritans alike. This microscopic (or myopic) view obscures the advances art has made on a timeline that takes a Macro view.
It is within the context of the narrative of art’s advancement that Mr. Finch’s call for a new avant-garde is in fact particularly retrograde. The ultimate historical progression through Modernism to the present has essentially removed any and all constraints on artists and the art object, allowing the artist the freedom to pursue their own interests rather than be yoked to moving a narrative progression forward by working in opposition to the fashion of a dominate practice. This atomization of direction and the end of the master narrative within art has been facilitated by the art market as more voices and ideas find their way into the market. Base motives are tied to evolutionary drives and needs; if someone can find a niche and profit from bringing new voices to the market that increase in population should be seen as a net positive. I would expect that someone whose major listed publication is entitled Most Art Sucks would display a greater consideration of the roll volume plays in cultural production and it seems to me that the only way to return to the dialectic opposition and progression that a cultural avant-garde requires is for a mass extinction within the art community. Such a near apocalypse may very well push the cause of art back far enough that Mr. Finch would have a new avant-garde to fight for, but it would also likely remove minority interests that have found a voice in recent decades and see the reinforcement of power in the hands of white males. Culling the market to save art is tantamount to aligning with the new conservatism of the Tea Party movement, turning back past victories in order to give the critic something to do.
I think the issue is not that the supply and demand of the art market functions as Darwin’s forces of natural selection, but that what is being selected for does not meet the higher values commonly ascribed to art. Mr. Finch would remove the ugly economic struggle for survival on the forest floor that is the art market with central planning from the government. Any attempt to remove art from the larger global economic system is a fool’s errand, and think what you will of the results, the matter of Capitalism vs. Communism has largely been decided. It is not an issue of political values as much as it is of accepting the inherent messiness of an emergent, bottom up process, and the results might not be what was expected. Allowing art to function and continue to evolve within the mess of the market will ultimately be what moves it forward, even if it has to leave a (non-existent) soul behind.
 #Rank, and its predecessor #Class were a source of inspiration for my own Art & the Mainstream posts here.
 Other structures, such as how artists move into the professional ranks, have also adapted and changed to fit historical and technological advances, but that hasn’t altered the overall relationship to funding by the elite.
 Speaking specifically of Western art as it has progressed from the Renaissance through to the emergence of Modernism and Post-modernism, and the hegemony these strains of art exhibit within the current global art market.
 See my references to Sturgeon’s Law elsewhere on this blog.